One of this year’s most powerful Dramas is before us. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, KING RICHARD is the true story behind Richard Williams, father of Tennis icons Venus and Serena. The Family-Sports Drama chronicles their uphill battle from their life in Compton to securing a place among Tennis’ elite. Will Smith plays the role of Richard, the often misunderstood mastermind behind the Williams Sisters’ success, supported by some superb performances by Aunjanue Ellis as wife Oracene, Saniyya Sidney as Venus, and Demi Singleton as Serena.
We couldn’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday than to sit-in on the Press Conference for KING RICHARD. In attendance were:
Reinaldo Marcus Green (Director)
Trevor White (Producer)
Zach Baylin (Writer)
Venus Williams (Executive Producer)
Serena Williams (Executive Producer)
Isha Price (Producer, sister to Venus and Serena)
Sisters Venus and Serena Williams talk about the surreal experience of seeing their family portrayed on-screen.
Venus: “I think it’s super-emotional. I’ve seen the Trailer, read the Script and every time I watch it, my eyes get watery. I think it was amazing seeing the family atmosphere on the set and how much Demi and Saniyya really acted like me and Serena. I saw them holding hands and it was so sweet! I’m so proud of what everyone has accomplished. It’s pretty surreal to be honest. They really understood our family and portrayed us in a way that was really us and we’re really proud of that.”.
Serena: “No words describe it better than just surreal. To see these incredible Actresses and everyone behind it who put this all together about our dad, his journey because of myself and my sister. Wow, are we really something? It really is super-surreal for me and then to have Will to play my father in the way he just embodied Richard Williams, it just took the Film to a whole new level. It’s so emotional, it’s well-done and a brilliant piece of work.”.
Will Smith talks about what appealed to him most about playing Richard Williams.
Will: “We were talking earlier and there was an interview that Venus was doing when she was 13 or 14 and Richard Williams snaps on a reporter. I saw that in real time and the look on Venus‘ face burned an image on my heart because that’s how I wanted my daughter to look when I showed-up. The interview had really changed my parenting at the time. It was like she had a lion. She was so confident and comfortable that her lion wasn’t going to let anything happen to her. And I fell in love with Richard Williams. That was 20 something years ago. When the opportunity to be a part of this came-up, the first thing I knew I wanted was to show a father protecting a daughter like that to the world.”.
Tim White is one of the Film’s Executive Producers and talks about KING RICHARD‘s long journey to the big screen.
Tim: “I had played Juniors Tennis and sort of knew the story of Richard Williams a little bit and it was something that always really stuck with me, this image of 1999 at the Lipton Championships, him holding up a sign that said ‘I TOLD YOU SO’. Around 2014-2014, Trevor and I started talking about this as a potential idea for a movie. We were both just incredibly inspired by the family’s relentless pursuit of this dream. We started to meet with Writers and for a couple years with 25-30 Writers and found out that there are a thousand different ways to tell this story. It wasn’t until we met Zach that we really zeroed-in on exactly what this was. It was really that Script that started the process of this Film actually becoming real. We sent the Script to Will, Isha and really at that point began to bring this to life.”.
Aunjanue Ellis delivers a powerful Grand Slam as the Williams Sisters‘ mother Oracene. She long has been an acclaimed veteran of the screen (When They Can See Us, Birth of a Nation) and admits she felt like she’s done something right in her career for it to lead her to this coveted role today.
Aunjanue: “I want to say that I give a whole lot of credit to these Filmmakers. They insisted that Miss Oracene not be in the shadows. To do something where we did not see her as a Co-Conspirator of this crazy dream would have been dishonest. We tried to give her the presence she deserved to have because that was the truth.”.
KING RICHARD introduces us to a couple brilliant young talents in Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singletonas Venus and Serena, respectively.The two talk about bringing authenticity to their roles, and we learned that Saniyya is left-handed and had to learn to play Tennis like Venus on the off-hand.
Demi: “To bring everything together and make it feel as real as possible, I think Saniyya and I just did a lot of research. That was really important to us that everything we did was real because this is not our story, this is theirs. We searched the internet and had Miss Isha there.”.
“The first time I got to speak to Serena was when they surprised us on set. That was such a fun day. They spoke to us about everything but tennis. They spoke about their life and childhood, the people that they dated growing-up. (The Panel laughs) We just got to speak to them as people. It was really fun to get to know that side of Serena.”.
Serena: “We wanted to make sure we were portrayed in the right way.”.
Saniyya: “I was so nervous meeting Venus for the first time. We had such great conversations not about tennis, but just them as people. I’ve looked-up to them too since I was little. It was very important to let people know how big of a heart Venus has. We had such an amazing experience on this set, getting to create this family, not just with my Cast but everyone behind the camera. They made us feel so comfortable. I was excited to try tennis. It was great.”.
Venus: “What was interesting was one of the coaches was someone we went to the Macci Academy with. It’s such a small world that ended-up happening. I think it really connected getting the girls ready for this role.”.
Jon Bernthal is a real revelation as coach Rick Macci and he talks about what he identified with most in KING RICHARD.
Jon: “It’s such an incredible honour to be a part of this family and beautiful story! To me there’s nothing more important in my world than my babies. Parenthood is the most important job, it’s the hardest job and a job you’re never gonna get perfect. For me, the thing I connected with in Rick, talking to some of the folks who played for him, talking to him and talking to Serena about him, was that he loved the game and made it fun. I think that was something with Richard that you could get behind, as weird and quirky as he was with his mustache and hair, you could still get behind this guy.”.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green talks about the process of making this Film and thought often about his mother.
Reinaldo: “I was on the tennis court once before that, I am a baseball player and in making a movie, I wanted to make a movie that my mom could see. She understands what family, what love is. She understands what struggle is. I made this Movie for folks like my mother who could see this and enjoy it and still understand what’s happening and not get lost in the technical aspects of the sport. We honed-in on what aspects of tennis we needed to tell this story. When we were talking about ‘open stance’, which Venus and Serena used to revolutionize the game of tennis, we had to be specific about that. Let’s talk about how we could use that in the Film to shape the tennis sequences.”.
“Not every film has everyone love each other when you call ‘cut!’. As we know, we were roping each other just to get it in. It is a testament to how much fun we created on the set with Will and Aunjanue being the backbone of the family, not only in the Film, but on-set. They created an environment for everyone to excel and it was amazing.”.
Tony Goldwyn plays Paul Cohen, a coach who played a formative role in the Williams Sisters’ success getting into the Juniors.
Tony: “It was really interesting. Zach‘s Script was one of the things that appealed to me and in this contentious relationship with Richard, there is this playfulness to it and a mutual respect. I found the real Paul Cohen and had long conversations withhim. I asked him about his relationship with the Williams family and Venus and Serena. And I asked about the approach he took teaching tennis because I just wasn’t sure. It’s a very intense, high-octane thing. What I want to say is that it’s about family and making it something joyful even though it’s super-intense. He expressed this love for the family and this incredible admiration for Richard, so it validated what I saw in Zach‘s Script. Whatever disagreements they had, was offset by the fact that this man is fighting and advocating for his kids, and Oracene too. For me, my first day on-set, with all the sisters, it was almost like there was some type of a magnet and I thought, ‘This was easy, because this is a family!’. It was seamless when they were on-camera and when they weren’t.”.
Will Smith talks about playing Richard Williams, comparing it to his own experience as a father.
Will: “When I take-on a role I do it to explore something. It was a new idea for me aligning with your children versus directing your children. It was a very, very different concept and approach that was magical in the Williams family that the rules were set, but the rules that were established were divine. So faith was at the center and it was a collective journey we were going on. It wasn’t as a parent, ‘I know and you don’t, so you’re gonna do as I say!’. It was somewhat what eye-opening for me. My father was very military when I was growing up, the kids don’t get a vote. You do what’s established for you. There’s some benefits to that mindset, but this was a very different thing.”.
Zach Baylin talks about not making the Film about chronicling the Williams Sisters’ successes, but more so about giving us an authentic glimpse at their family life and journey.
Zach: “I think that was the big effort. It was going to be a gripping family story that’s not just a SportsCentre package about moments we all know. If we were really gonna get to know the family, we really needed the intimate moments. We collectively had found the architecture of where the Movie is going. It was really about digging-in and doing research, finding the little things that this family did. I wrote first draft of the Script and thought it was pretty good, but sat down with everyone and asked what was it really like in the van, dinner table with Richard. That’s what really brought it to life, not just chronicling greatest hits. It’s a inside look at every moment.”.
Isha Price serves as a Producer on KING RICHARD, but also happens to be Venus and Serena‘s sister. She was on-hand during filming to ensure scenes were captured as authentically as possible as an accurate reflection of her family.
Isha: “It was definitely a journey, this persistence of Tim and Trevor in wanting to tell the story of my dad and not have it be one of vilification, but one of who he was as a father and what he wanted to do, and how the family came together to be able to do that. When it was understood that was what we wanted to happen, it became a lot easier to get behind it. Then was the process of going to my family after reading the Script. There’s this opportunity, there’s this Script, it’s a little raw. There’s definitely things we can finesse and get right. This person is behind it and we have a lot of respect for Will. He wants to get it right and won’t do it unless we bought into idea of doing of what this could be and doing it right and being ourselves. That took some time.”.
“That vilification aspect is still out there. Being able to trust this Filmmaker and this Production Team and everyone can do it the right way. Often time in the sport, you get one chance at it. To make sure it was told right, it was fair and honest. It really displayed the integrity we always tried to have as a family. It took some time to get there with my family. There’s a little bit of distrust as you can imagine being in public eye for so long. To be written about at young age and not have people understand what our family dynamic is like and get asked, ‘Are they close? Do they fight off the court?’. Years and years of that we built-up a bit of distrust. We got there because I did trust that as long as there was gonna be a footprint there – and I might have gotten a couple people upset – it was important for me because I had a responsibility to my family to make sure this story was told right. To have willing participants on this journey with this entire Cast and Production Team wanting to do it right, is why the story is what it is. Everyone had a hand in wanting to get this story right and tell this real hero story of what he was able to do, but also the foundation that my mom was able to lay and be sure that part of the family was there. That was the part we wanted to make sure was right. There are no words for how Aunjanue got it and made sure her presence was felt.”.
Venus and Serena tell us what they hope young girls watching can take away from the Film.
Venus: “Anything is possible and to always believe in yourself, never doubt. Doubt does nothing for you. The time you spend doubting is the same time you can spend believing in you. As a family you can achieve anything. This is a Family film. Even if you don’t understand tennis, you understand family. Surrounding yourself with family can take you higher.”.
Serena: “You really do have to believe in yourself that anything is possible. There’s nothing wrong with setting your goals high. The sky is literally the limit.”.
Warner Bros. Pictures Canada release KING RICHARD in theatres November 19, 2021.